WHEN BOOKS BECOME MOVIES or plays, the temptation to judge the adaptation by its source material is strong, though the actors are normally excluded from comparison. You may judge the veracity of a screen characterization, but don’t, for example, compare Kate Winslet’s performance in Revolutionary Road to the words in Richard Yates’ novel. The Centaur Theatre production of John Patrick Shanley’s award-winning play Doubt, now a major motion picture also written and directed by Shanley, presents a different kind of challenge. Like it or not, Alain Goulem and Brenda Robins have to go head to head with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep.
Doubt: A Parable takes place in the Bronx, 1964. An Irish-Italian Catholic school led by an overbearing, fearsome nun receives its first black student which, while seemingly unremarked upon by the student body, sets off waves of suspicion and allegations of pedophilia from the fire-and-brimstone Sister Aloysius (Robins) toward the progressive Father Flynn (Goulem), with the naïve Sister James (Lina Roessler) caught in between. The stage play is substantially simpler than the film, but both are essentially showcases for performers.
In the Centaur production, directed by Micheline Chevrier, the Bronx accents are uniformly thicker (the play’s opening challenge, “What do ya dew when ya not shuah?” has Goulem turning up the Bronx factor to 11) and the characterizations are less nuanced. In the case of Sister James, this actually works in the play’s favour, as Roessler’s performance highlights the sheep-like quality (and, in one scene, the bratty temper) of the character.
Lucinda Davis, however, faces an uphill battle as Mrs. Muller, the black student’s mother. The same words that led to what was arguably the best performance in the film version, courtesy of Viola Davis, here draw guffaws. Oddly, Davis brings sass to her portrayal of Mrs. Muller, resulting in what seems to be an almost cavalier attitude towards her son’s well-being. While the audience tittered throughout the performance (a reaction that seems unthinkable in the film), the laughs in the scene between Mrs. Muller and Aloysius mostly seemed to result from off-target performances.
The film’s use of background performers adds an important dimension. For instance, in the scene wherein Flynn discusses good manual hygiene to his gym class, the stage version merely allows the length of his nails to suggest a tacit effeteness to the character, while the film adds a certain predatory quality merely by virtue of having the Father’s long nails put before actual children. It is these kinds of subtle touches that can significantly muddy the moral waters that the play dives into.
Both versions occupy a confined space (the school grounds and Aloysius’ office), yet the Centaur version feels static. While director Chevrier makes the most of a simple stage setup—a chair, two stools that combine to create the pulpit, a desk and a sad Charlie Brown Christmas-like potted tree, her failure to move the actors in the play’s key scene between Muller and Aloysius sucks the life out of it. Shanley, perhaps aware of how stifling the interior was to this interaction, in the movie takes the scene outdoors.
The audible chatter of the audience during the final blackout may have meant that the Centaur production provoked the desired debate and discussion in its viewers. Or they could have been talking about something else. That’s the beauty of Doubt, you can never really be sure.
Doubt: A Parable, at Centaur Theatre, 453 St. François Xavier St. in Old Montreal, continues until March 29. Tickets: www.centaurtheatre.com or 514-288-3161.
Dru Jeffries is a Ph. D. student in Film and Moving Image Studies at Concordia University.